Sensational discoveries by a Polish mission in the Nile Delta have revealed that far from being hostile regions as previously supposed, Upper and Lower Egypt were politically united in predynastic times, says Jill Kamil
Recent discoveries by a Polish archaeological mission at Tel Al-Farkha (literally "the chicken hill") in the north-eastern Delta about 120 kilometres north-east of Cairo are remarkable and sensational. Remarkable in that they reveal that the "Two Lands" of Upper and Lower Egypt were not rivals in predynastic times but culturally united. Sensational in the material objects discovered. They include numerous statuettes and amulets carved of hippopotamus tusk, and several dozen golden plate fragments came to light, the latter arduously reconstructed into figurines of exceptional beauty. Although a mere 60 centimetres in height, these naked standing men have eyes made of lapis lazuli, while various details such as sticking out ears, large phalluses, and detailed fingers and toes reveal characteristics of later Pharaonic art.
"From almost the very beginning of our work it became obvious that the scientific value of the site was tremendous, and might lead to a completely different view on the processes resulting in the emergence of the pharaonic civilization," wrote M. Chlodnicki and K. Cialowicz in Ivory and Gold, a photo-documentation of the Polish excavation of the site in the 2006 and 2007 archaeological seasons. The mission uncovered an extensive settlement and they were thrilled to find, in a large pottery vessel, the above objects "which have no counterparts in finds from the other sites with early Egyptian architecture and art". They have been dated to the time of Dynasty "O" and the beginning of the First Dynasty (c. 3100 to 3000 BC).
One figurine of a man is noteworthy because he is wearing a cloak which might be the earliest representation of a leader wrapped in a long robe associated with the Heb Sed festival, one of the very oldest ceremonies, alluded to in many of the inscriptions at Abydos dating to the First and Second dynasties. This was a festival during which the leader or king would prove his vigour and competence to rule the nation. Another figurine has one foot forward in a pose that is almost identical to that of later high royal officials. Also found were beautifully carved but curious looking dwarfs in realistic poses that have their counterparts in predynastic discoveries made at Aswan, as well as seated figurines with the finger to mouth pose -- which indicates childhood.
The deposit included miniature vessels of faience, pottery and stone, and the Polish mission gave special attention to representations of baboons, cobras, and a figurine depicting a prostrate man (probably a captive) wearing nothing by a penis sheath; his hair and beard are long and his facial features clearly archaic. Worth mentioning also were the discoveries of pottery rattles, decorated rattles, pear-shaped mace-heads, miniature vessels, faience beads and gaming pieces.
The discovery is important, because one of the key issues of modern archaeology, and indeed one that is central to an understanding of the political and social development of ancient Egypt, is the formative period of the ancient Egyptian civilisation and the origin of the concept of the "Two Lands" -- a term used by the ancients themselves to describe their own country. Until relatively recently it was believed that the predynastic communities in Upper and Lower Egypt gradually coalesced until two independent kingdoms emerged, Nekhen in Upper Egypt and Pe [Buto] in Lower Egypt, and that the formation of these federations was a step towards unification.
Subsequent discoveries changed this concept, and scholars in the latter part of the 20th century hypothesised that the two "kingdoms" were actually parallel institutions, artificially created by the early kings who wanted to establish a single, unified state in a country that did not easily lend itself to unification. Consequently they gave each part of the country a distinctive name, thereafter treating Nekhen in Upper Egypt, and Pe in the Delta, as though they were once independent kingdoms. The learned pre-historians admitted that the period just before the crucial political unification was still clouded in mystery because unification was accompanied by the establishment of a strong centralised government, a new approach to the perennial problems of river-control and irrigation, and Egyptian artists developing new ways of depicting things -- all apparently appearing out of the blue.
Now, thanks to the Polish discoveries, it is fairly certain that there were indeed two predynastic capitals of Upper and Lower Egypt, but that far from being rival and hostile regions as suggested in mythological tradition they may have been culturally and politically united for a long period of time. Also significant is that the incentive behind unification may have been trade .
The question of a predynastic union between the Two Lands remains a hotly debated issue because there are no written records to confirm such a union. However, archaeologists excavating at Abydos have found historical proof of the order of succession of the earliest kings of Pharaonic Egypt (inscribed on a clay seal), and also, in a predynastic and already heavily excavated cemetery, evidence of a possible 15 kings before Narmer (Menes/Aha), who stands at the beginning of recorded dynastic history.
During the long predynastic era, different settlements (identified with totems) appear to have expanded their boundaries and begun to coalesce. Maybe some tribal groups gravitated towards larger ones and started to trade and barter with them. A process of assimilation took place. They became more dependent on one another, and there was a natural fusion into larger social units. Gradually the affairs of various villagers became tied to a major settlement, which undoubtedly represented the richest and most powerful of them. This is especially apparent at Nekhen near the modern town of Edfu, where there are five unusually large graves among the burials, and, as we now know, at Buto in the Delta.
The thrust for expansion, and ultimate unification, came from the south. About 3400 BC, when Egypt entered the last stage of its pre-dynastic experience, there is evidence of the late stage of what is known as the Naqada culture (Naqada III), which has been identified at numerous sites in Upper Egypt. In contrast to the slow pace of earlier development, rapid advances were made. The Naqada III people were skilled in the execution of slate palettes for grinding paint, which were carved in the shape of decorative fish, birds and animal designs. Amulets were produced in larger assorted stones and in different designs. Ivory statuettes were carved with exaggerated sexual characteristics. And toys like small stone balls, game pieces, and a kind of chessboard were sometimes found buried with children. Decorated ware included small boxes of ivory or wood inlaid with ivory to hold a woman's possessions, and at the more practical level tools such as axe-heads, adzes, hoes, daggers and knives of beaten metal were produced. As for pottery, vases were produced from a variety of hard and brightly-coloured stone: basalt and alabaster, white limestone, red breccia, marble, diorite and granite, the stone shaped by skilled artisans using stone drills.
These objects were made to serve a burgeoning Upper Egyptian elite, whose tombs were lined with matting, wood or mud-brick, with extra chambers added to accommodate grave goods. As a result of the rapidly developing upper class, there was a demand for imported raw materials for the development of industries and an acceleration of trade -- not only along the river but also overland. The movement of Upper Egyptians northwards can be traced to settlements at Omari (north of Helwan at the mouth of the Wadi Hof in the Eastern Desert, which gave on to mineral rich areas), and various sites in the eastern and central Delta, including Tell Ibrahim Awad, Tell Samara, Tell Al-Kabirm and Tel Al-Farkha, where there is evidence of early trade with the Levant and the Far East.
When the Upper Egyptians arrived on the Delta scene they were anxious to trade further, and archaeological evidence at Tel Al-Farkha indicates that they were at first accommodated by the local inhabitants, to their mutual advantage. The authors of Ivory and Gold, point out that "there are no traces of war or destruction" at the site, but rather "assimilation and acculturation". The Delta inhabitants appear to have accepted the southerners, and only when the latter slowly gained an advantage did a process of colonisation, the south of the north, take place.
Based on the present state of research, the stages towards establishing a unified state was much more complex than hitherto supposed. Cialowcz points out that before Upper Egyptians entered the Delta, there were at least two centres that rivalled them in every field. "Cultural unification [which is observed in archaeological materials all over Egypt, from Elephantine to the Mediterranean] was not equal to political union. Contemporary rulers using the same language, writing or tools, competed for power and influence, and important in this struggle was the desire to conquer the Delta and its vital trade routes to the east."
In other words, high-ranking officials of the leading elite in Upper Egypt, desirous of obtaining luxurious imported material objects from the Levant, moved inexorably northwards. And the inhabitants of the Buto, at first attracted by the more advanced and modern "southerners", accepted them. Over time, this enabled the latter to control trade between the Delta and the Near East in addition to Upper Egypt and Nubia.
Tel Al-Farkha by no means supplies all the answers. Nevertheless, it now seems certain that several kings were rivals in trade, and culturally united long before Narmer ascended the throne. New avenues of research have been opened up.
Important clues in Delta sites
THE REASON why the important site at Tel Al-Farkha was not excavated earlier was that, until the second half of the 20th century, the Delta was largely unchartered territory. One reason was that there were not many monuments visible above the surface. Another was because traces of the oldest settlements and cemeteries, if any, were covered with a thick layer of alluvial soil and it was concluded that any archaeological remains would have been adversely affected, if not totally destroyed, by underground seepage.
The introduction of modern archaeological techniques following the Nubian Salvage Operation in the 1960s changed all that. Complex geophysical prospection and geological drilling techniques have enabled serious investigation of Delta sites, and there was an upsurge of interest following a symposium at the Netherlands Institute in Cairo in 1986 when several papers described rewarding excavations at various Delta sites.
One of the sites was Tel Al-Farkha. An Italian archaeological mission worked there for over four seasons between 1988 and 1990, excavating mud-brick buildings which enabled them to make important scientific observations. But when they failed to come up with any spectacular discoveries -- and like it or not it is difficult to raise funds for continued work at an "unproductive" site -- they moved on to other areas. Too bad for them that they abandoned the site too soon, because when work was resumed by the Poles they dug wider and deeper and made the above-described spectacular discoveries on the "eastern kom". The lowest (i.e. oldest) strata revealed that people lived there from about 3600 to 3300 BC, which confirmed earlier assumptions that the site was Pe (Buto), the traditional counterpart of Nekhen (Greek Hierakonpolis near the modern town of Edfu), the predynastic capital in Upper Egypt.